Photo by Forest Wallingford.
AMPLIFIER’s Carmen Vaquera grew up in Winston-Salem before training as a chef at Guilford Technical Community College. Since culinary school, she worked in various fine-dining restaurants in Greensboro and did a little turn as a celebrity chef to the stars during the filming of “Are You Here” in Winston.
No matter how much she was cooking, one could always find her spending her evenings writing for hours in large notebooks full of recipes, notes and poetry.
Vaquera has since moved to the highlands, becoming the pastry chef at the critically acclaimed Curaté and Nightbell restaurants, both of which have brought her to food festivals in cities from Aspen to Barcelona. She goes passionately toward her dreams and flies in the face of adversity, all while wielding a whisk, a knife and a pen.
[Danielle Chiasson] How long have you been writing for AMPLIFIER?
[Carmen Vaquera] I joined AMPLIFIER in the summer of 2015. There was a need for an Asheville-based writer, and I jumped at the chance to be a part of such a talented team. Having the chance to shine a light on little known talent in Asheville has been an exciting endeavor.
[DC] You grew up in the Triad. What helped you in Winston and Greensboro to become the person you are today?
[CV] To be honest, I grew up dreaming to get out of North Carolina. I wanted to pursue, what I thought was, a bigger and better life in a larger city. As I got older, I began to appreciate my state more and more. As a pastry chef, I am constantly inspired by the deep-rooted culinary traditions that make up southern cuisine.
While I place great importance on making time to travel and gain exposure, North Carolina is my home. The Triad is diverse and harbors a wealth of creative folks thinking forward in their respective fields. Thinking back, my mother was very involved in the art community in Winston-Salem growing up, and it had a huge influence on me. Live music, painting, drawing and photography surrounded me constantly and Winston-Salem’s artistic vibe definitely shaped who I am today.
[DC] What drew you to Asheville? And, what cultural elements keep you living there and inspire you to write about it?
[CV] I had never visited western North Carolina until about two years before I moved here from Greensboro. I did not realize how much this region had to offer. I made an impromptu visit with friends and fell in love with this part of the state. Coming to Asheville from the Piedmont region, you have to drive up the side of a mountain. I felt like I was entering an alternate universe—it was beautiful. It is inspiring being surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and having it as the backdrop for my daily life. Asheville is a thriving city, yet breathtaking waterfalls and hikes that oversee the mountains are just minutes away. This small community is home to loads of small business owners who have migrated here to do whatever it is they’re passionate about. It is a very accepting, open-minded city that supports creativity for creativity’s sake. Also, Asheville is home to 20 breweries and counting. I really, really like beer.
[DC] Is Asheville your favorite N.C. city? If not, what is? Why?
[CV] Since Asheville is my home, I would have to award it as my favorite N.C. city. That is not to discredit my appreciation of many other cities and towns in our state. One of my favorite day-off adventures is exploring small mountain towns in western N.C. Bryson City is one of my favorites. It’s a small town of just over one thousand people, but it is situated against the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Nantahala National Forest. I love any excuse to go to Nantahala Brewery, have a beer on the patio and watch the train pass by on the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad. I also live pretty close to Lake Lure where the movie “Dirty Dancing” was filmed. My fiancé and I will throw on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and cruise around the lake town. Lake Lure is a sleepy town that is a bit stuck in time, but that’s where its charm lies. It hasn’t moved a beat since Baby’s big dance.
[DC] Does your pastry career help you to meet interesting artists and visionaries in your community?
[CV] Absolutely. Asheville is becoming a food destination and being a part of that movement in a small city is a special thing. When I am not in a kitchen, I am always out supporting other local businesses, and I meet new, talented people every week. People who live in Asheville are very open and friendly—it’s to make new friends and connections everywhere you go.
[DC] Where do you see yourself going from here?
[CV] I am pretty content with where I am right now, developing plated desserts and beyond. I would love to have a simple little bake shop of my own one day, but in due time. Right now, I am using this time to learn and grow as a chef. Every year I attempt to expand my knowledge base, skills sets, and I’m trying to find my artistic voice. Discovering what your style is in any creative field can be a lifelong journey. Right now, I really enjoy delving further into classic techniques and gaining practice with avant-garde and modernist techniques. I have a love for the old as well as the new. I think my future aspirations lie somewhere between the two.